“Shut up about Harvard.” That’s the headline from a 2016 Five Thirty-Eight article about how the highly selective colleges are not representative. The story was part of a shift in the conversation about higher education. Today, college talk focuses on affordability, graduation rates, and finding a job as much as it does on exclusivity and status.
Tangible changes followed the discourse. For example, standardized tests once reigned supreme in the college admissions game. Now a growing list of colleges and universities have gone test-optional. Given the limited benefits of standardized tests and their known biases, the move to test-optional admissions makes sense. But it probably wouldn’t have been possible without a shift in the public conversation.
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The evolving media focus has helped nudge our sector in good directions. Standardized tests once reigned supreme in college admissions; now a growing list of institutions have gone test-optional. The prestige-focused U.S. News & World Report rankings have started paying attention to graduate indebtedness. Philanthropists has taken notice of previously “overlooked” community colleges and minority-serving intuitions.
The more holistic higher-ed media discourse has helped nurture these welcome changes. And yet reflexive Harvard-bashing does not always move higher ed forward. A new report by Michael Itzkowitz of Third Way, a center-left think tank, is a case in point. Itzkowitz uses data from the College Scorecard, a federal database he helped to create, as well as from other sources, to rank U.S. colleges along a calculated economic-mobility index. The results? The City University of New York and Cal State systems rank highly. Harvard does not. A New York Times opinion piece trumpeted that now-familiar mantra: “The Path to Social Equity in Higher Ed Doesn’t Run Through Harvard.”
The Third Way rankings are part of a recent cluster of data-driven exposés on how little the nation’s most selective colleges do to promote social equity — and how much broad-access institutions achieve. The new rankings follow the economist Raj Chetty’s Mobility Report Cards, the Education Trust’s report on racial segregation at selective colleges, and numerous think-tank and advocacy reports in demonstrating that the most prestigious colleges don’t do much for social equity. Even the Carnegie classification plans to rethink institutional categorization by devising a new category that reflects social and economic mobility. By folding diversity and social mobility into the mix, the Carnegie classification hopes to reorient higher ed’s North Star from the R1s to campuses that are serving students and communities that society marginalizes.
At this point, you might be asking, what’s the problem with ranking colleges on social mobility? Before answering that question, I’ll tell you what I think is good about these projects. We absolutely should celebrate and reward campuses that educate and graduate learners from low-income families, immigrants, first-generation college-goers, and those whose racial and ethnic identities our society marginalizes. Public policy should ensure the viability and success of these campuses and the learners who enroll at them. I am in lockstep up to this point.
But does it make sense to rank colleges along social mobility? Ranking along such a metric implies that some colleges cause social mobility because they are good, while others reproduce inequality because they are bad. That story is too pat.
How does a college score highly on social mobility? Enroll many learners from low- and moderate-income backgrounds, charge modest tuition, and be located in an area with lots of economic activity. The top-ranked campuses are mostly broad-access public institutions that enroll many underserved students. The top 25 include 10 California State University campuses and seven CUNY campuses. The Third Way rankings also better recognize the work of minority-serving institutions than do traditional rankings. Seven of the top 100 are historically Black colleges and universities.
The students, faculty, and staff at these engines of opportunity deserve recognition and, importantly, more support. So it’s great that the rankings highlight their excellent work. But the truth is, social mobility might depend more on what’s happening off campus than what’s happening on campus. Political economy and economic geography confound the rankings, and factors outside the control of individual institutions shape the extent to which their excellent work results in upward social mobility. For example, one study shows that social mobility correlates with economic inequality. In areas where the gap between rich and poor is vast, and the prospects of folks who don’t have a degree are pretty dim, graduating from college can make a big difference.
Moreover, a glance at the top 50 colleges shows high-mobility institutions concentrated around the country’s largest and metropolitan regions. Economic activity in big, diverse cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas means the efforts of learners and faculty and staff in places like CUNY and Cal State can see a return in the form of social mobility. By acknowledging that political economy and economic geography matter, I am not minimizing the contributions and hard work made at the campuses that rank highly on Itzkowitz’s economic-mobility index. I am, however, recognizing that broad-access institutions lower on the list might see less mobility because of where they are located rather than poor institutional performance.
Colleges that enroll many low- and moderate-income learners tend to do well on social mobility. Nationally, about a third of students are eligible for a Pell Grant, but the top 10 colleges on the Third Way ranking average over 60-percent Pell eligibility. Serving low-income students, however, does not guarantee social mobility. Of the 15 institutions Third Way tracks that enroll more than 75-percent Pell-eligible students, 13 are below average for economic mobility. Twelve of these 13 are minority-serving institutions, almost all of which are in small towns or rural communities in the South. The Third Way rankings seem to imply these institutions are not serving their students well. I find that implication uncomfortable. Chronic conditions of neglect from state governments and philanthropy, along with concentrations of poverty and economic stagnation created by hundreds of years of racist policies, seem to be more plausible explanations than variation in organizational performance. The problem with rankings is they suggest context neutrality when the reality is anything but.
It is not just the most selective institutions that show unimpressive social mobility. Fordham University, my undergraduate alma mater, ranks 838. It accepts about half of all applicants, is located in New York City, and has a Roman Catholic Jesuit mission that supposedly prioritizes social justice. Why doesn’t Fordham do better? First, Fordham is heavily tuition-dependent. Second, it is chasing other Jesuit institutions on the East Coast like Boston College and Georgetown for prestige. It sounds like a moral predicament (social mobility, or prestige?), and in many respects, it is. But it’s also more complicated than that.
In 2020, Fordham’s endowment was about $713 million, but rivals Boston College ($2.6 billion) and Georgetown ($1.9 billion) are much wealthier. (They also score higher on the Third Way rankings.) Fordham is surely anxious about the gap in wealth and renown between itself and those peers it aspires toward, which makes it feel like it can’t afford to admit as many low-income students.
Commitments espoused by leaders may also have little to do with performance on the social-mobility ranking. Paul J. LeBlanc, Southern New Hampshire University’s president, is an innovator with an outspoken commitment to access and putting students first. I trust LeBlanc’s convictions, yet his university ranks 1,185th on the economic-mobility index. Arizona State University’s Michael Crow is also known for innovation and a commitment to access. In contrast to SNHU, ASU does quite well, clocking in at 95th on the mobility rating. Both have substantial online enrollments, but ASU is a public university located in a vast and economically vibrant city (Phoenix), while SNHU is a private university with a limited endowment situated in a small New England state. These sorts of complications are why I don’t find the Third Way rankings very helpful.
Let’s spend less time ranking colleges for things outside their control, and more time asking some fundamental questions: Why does higher education produce the sorts of outcomes it does? What kinds of outcomes do we want, and how can we get them?
The Third Way report, quite reasonably, suggests that the “primary purpose of postsecondary education is supposed to be to catalyze an increase in economic mobility.” The thing is, we already have some ideas on how to achieve this. One is to invest more in broad access to public colleges. A recent State Higher Education Executive Officers Association report clarifies the benefit of investing in public higher education. Spending $1,000 more per student at public colleges would result in about 75,000 new bachelor’s degrees within two years, going a long way to boosting economic mobility. That investment might be even more important in places like the Great Lakes region, where higher ed can help stimulate economic development in areas with fewer mobility opportunities. The challenge is getting the money flowing to the places where we know it will make a difference — not making fine distinctions in institutional mobility scores.
The problem is trickier when it comes to private nonprofit colleges. I don’t think a public flogging will change Harvard’s behavior one whit; no one does. Instead of giving Harvard a lousy rank, we should consider some policy tools that may have leverage, such as linking the ability to compete for some federal research grants to enrolling more low-income students. Things get even more complicated from there. The learners at small HBCUs in the rural South deserve better outcomes. When Black people organized institutions of higher learning following the Civil War, they were providing for themselves what the country refused to provide. The situation facing these colleges and their students is a failure of the U.S. government and society. Holding such HBCUs accountable through rankings for a reality they experience but did not create seems counterproductive.
The social-mobility rankings encourage us to sidestep these hard questions and the uncomfortable, complex realities of our academic system by distilling everything down to a single rating. Rather than carrying on a conversation about which colleges are up and which are down, we need a more nuanced discourse that reflects sociological and political realities — not expedient narratives.